31 May 2009

Caltrain Does the Right Thing: Nothing

For a few months after the passage of Proposition 1A in November 2008, it seemed as if Caltrain was conducting business as usual on its capital improvement program. They are finally showing signs of waking up to HSR and its implications for the numerous capital projects in their pipeline. (photo by PBO31)

In April, Caltrain placed the renovation of the South San Francisco station on hold. This $50 million project, fully funded and at the 90% design stage--the shovel doesn't get any readier--was shut down at the last minute over uncertainty in the plans for HSR and the future configuration of the Union Pacific freight yard located there. The project will resume when more is known about detailed HSR plans for the area, probably within the next two years.

Further south and for the better part of the decade, Caltrain had plans to replace century-old, seismically unsafe, low-clearance bridges just north of downtown San Mateo. These antiquated bridges, crossing over Poplar, Santa Inez, Monte Diablo and Tilton avenues, are so low that even the Google Street View camera car nearly crashed into one. The work on this $27 million project was to start this summer. Not only would these four bridges need to be rebuilt and expanded for HSR, but they are also located in an area where the future vertical alignment of the tracks is highly uncertain, depending on how the new tracks are routed through downtown San Mateo. A San Mateo resident rightly complained about the disconnect. Recently, Caltrain announced they were opting for a better approach, consisting of a basic seismic retrofit and continued maintenance to extend the lifetime of the bridges just long enough to find out what will happen with HSR.

As part of their announcement, they stated: Caltrain is assessing its extensive capital program to better coordinate with high-speed rail and to make certain that today’s investments are not deemed obsolete in the near future.

Better do it right than do it twice.


  1. Caltrain is also going to need trains that look nothing like the one depicted in the photo. Commuter trains emptying into one main terminal need as many doors as possible: two per side is the absolute minimum, and three or more is preferable.

  2. heh your headline was a bit misleading. At first I thought that Caltrain did nothing right. But after some reading I relized that you mean Caltrain does the right thing by doing nothing.

    good eye catching headline. And glad to know caltrain are helping this HSR project by helping keep cost low by not rebuilding stuff twice.

  3. There are some good minds at Caltrain.

  4. Good to hear Caltrain is thinking clearly. And isn't just Caltrain. My opinion of their lawsuit against CHSRA aside, Menlo Park is holding off on a planned bicycle/pedestrian underpass at Burgess Park until more is known about how HSR will go through town. I guess someone realized that building an underpass would be inconsistent with demanding a tunnel.

  5. Caltrain's entire capital program = BART to Warm Springs.

    Thank you once again, VTA-MTC-PBQD!

  6. caltrain rider01 June, 2009 09:56

    Yes, thank goodness that we are stalling much needed and hard won caltrain improvements, plus we are putting on hold SHOVEL READY construction jobs that could be putting folks to work now. Who needs it. Lets wait 20 years for HSR to get figured out, or until such time that Diridon and Kopp finally "retire" and leave us all alone - then we can go ahead and do these repairs.

    Did they include the financial impact of delays in currently scheduled and funded improvement works? (already designed, already approved) Right. Who's footing the bill for the 90% work that's already been done and now is going to be thrown in to the trash?

  7. Better do it right than do it twice.
    Couldn't agree more. So this begs the question as to how these projects got so far along in the first place?

    Everything CHSRA plans to do north of Redwood city is going to be pretty darn close to what was in the Caltrain 2025 EMU/electrification plan. This suggests that even without HSR, these capital improvements were seriously flawed to begin with. Surely, Caltrain staff isn't that inept?

  8. Keep in mind that "Everything CHSRA plans to do" is exactly described by the sentence "build an HSR line from San Francisco to Anaheim via San Jose, Gilroy, Palmdale, and LA Union Station". No more and no less than that. The sum of their work so far has been to determine that this general route is probably financially feasible and that there are no big obvious engineering obstacles. They don't have any detailed plans yet, at all. Caltrain meanwhile has plans for a number of projects in the final design or EIR stage. Thus, there's a tension between the need to build various things that improve operational flexibility and ultimately make the service cheaper and/or more reliable, versus wanting to avoid duplication of work when the HSRA eventually comes up with their detailed plans. I think ultimately Caltrain is leaning more toward the former, though, with the delay at South San Francisco likely to really be because of a dispute with UP over the yard, and the delay at San Mateo being them quite pragmatically holding out to see if HSRA might give them a bit of stimulus money for a shovel-ready project.

  9. apparently in two years of work on the LA-Anaheim on the project EIR they are just now getting to the part where they decide which alternatives to actually study. what is their problem?

  10. @ anon @ 16:52 -

    LA-Anaheim was always going to use the SCRRA (Metrolink) ROW from Sylmar to Redondo Junction, then switch to the BNSF Transcon (91 line) to Fullerton before switching yet again to the narrow SCRRA ROW to Anaheim in mixed traffic mode.

    By all accounts, BNSF is generally much more receptive to HSR than UPRR - though it's not yet clear if that extends only to the CV ROW or to the much busier Transcon ROW as well. That said, HSR would implement full grade separation in an vital section, much like the Alameda Corridor East project is upgrading UPRR ROWs in the San Gabriel Valley.

    Grade crossing accidents are not just often fatal for the occupants of the car, bus or truck involved, they also cause major disruptions for the freight rail operations that deliver bulk goods to and from the interior of the country.

    CHSRA has - quite rightly - paid close attention to ROW preservation in the San Gabriel Valley. Without that, a major component of the whole network, the LA-Ontario-Riverside-San Diego spur can never be built. The freight rail operators, Caltrans, SCAG and probably others all have their own plans for the few available rail and highway median ROWs.

  11. Rafael - The Authority released the alternative analysis for the Anaheim corridor. None of the alternatives for that corridor that are moving forward include mixed traffic - dedicated HSR tracks from Anaheim to LAUS.

  12. Michael: the only document I could find on their site about that section specifically mentions Redondo-Fullerton as 4 tracks, two for freight and two for passenger (HSR, Metrolink, and Surfliner), and just two tracks on Fullerton-Anaheim for HSR, Surfliner, Metrolink, and San Diego-bound freights. I have to wonder, though, how well HSR will mix with all-stops Metrolink trains stopping at Fullerton, Buena Park, Norwalk, and Commerce. And, for that matter, what they are planning in terms of the layout at those stations.

  13. The alternatives analysis for LAUS-Anaheim is not where you might expect it - in the LAUS-Anaheim segment section but in library>>board meetings>>2009>>June

    Here's a link (it is long): http://www.cahighspeedrail.ca.gov/images/chsr/20090602162631_Agenda%20Item%209%20attachment-Ana-LA%20Alternatives%20Analysis%20Report.pdf

  14. Let's begin with the premise that we wish to help Caltrain extract itself from its structural budget deficit problems, which, as everyone knows will be greater than $10 million in the next fiscal year budget. There have been ample discussions recently about the Caltrain corridor and its anticipated use by the high-speed train. The deal, as we understand it, is that the rail authority uses it's funding capacity to pay for all grade separations, electrification, signaling systems and some other costs (amounting to between $4 and $5 billion). In their MOU, the financial participation of the JPB is the rail corridor itself.
    That's a problem. The fact is the JPB is the steward or administrator of the rail corridor, not the owner. The public - that's us - is the owner. And, in this bargain, we got a lousy deal. Please bear with me here.
    First of all, the JPB doesn't own the rail corridor anymore than the National Park Service owns the National Parks. These parks are public, government property. So is the Caltrain corridor. It was bought and paid for with our money. The JPB, consisting of nine appointed members, can’t own this property since we are the investors, with the three counties having poured over $500 million into it for and since its purchase.
    Then, JPB has taken a firm position that they continue to be the host/owner of the corridor, and the rail authority is the guest or tenant. Let’s accept that for the moment.
    What we are proposing here is far more business-like than the present arrangement. Since the rail authority intends to operate a highly profitable enterprise, with claims of projected annual revenues over $3 billion and profits over $2 billion, it turns out they are not obliged to pay rent or lease fees for the privilege of operating their train on OUR/the JPB corridor.
    That's a stupid deal. True, the rail authority does pay for the grade separations and electrification, but they themselves require these to become the profitable business they are proposing anyhow. These development investments are not solely for the benefit of Caltrain; the rail authority can’t run its business without these improvements. Furthermore, those investments will amortize over a period of time. And after that, the use of the corridor will be scot-free.
    That's just not right. The CHSRA should be charged an appropriate rental or lease fee. This is standard practice for railroad ROW owners. After all, where else can HSR go? We have them over a barrel, so to speak. And, these fees can and should contribute to Caltrain's bottom line. Right now, San Mateo County is contributing - our money -- $16.5 million annually to Caltrain's operation. It's our corridor. We want rent paid by the new occupant. And, those revenues can balance Caltrain's books.
    The JPB represents us. We need to make them perform their duties in a professional, business-like manner. It's in their interest as well as ours.

  15. Hi Martin,

    The whole question of operating vs. capital costs is a good one... and whether HSR should pay for Caltrain operating costs vs. capital costs. One way or the other I agree that Caltrain (and by extension peninsula communities) ought to be compensated for use of the corridor.

    The immediate shortfall at Caltrain is in operating costs.

    The problem with your suggestion is that Caltrain needs to close the gap now when HSR will only derive a tangible benefit from the Caltrain corridor in several years from now.

    Caltrain has not yet demonstrated any strong motivation to trim operating costs, such as by cutting the redundant assistant conductors present on every train. That alone would save millions-- the operating contract with Amtrak accounts for nearly two-thirds of their costs.

  16. One way or the other I agree that Caltrain (and by extension peninsula communities) ought to be compensated for use of the corridor.

    You don't want to go down that road. If Wikipedia is correct, SP wanted to abandon service in 1977. The state of California stepped in and subsidized service and capital improvements through 1991. Including the purchase of new rolling stock in 1985. The counties got together and formed the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board in 1987. The 1991 purchase was funded with "With state and local funding" I'm sure there was some Federal goodness in there too. The three counties wanna get possessive, I'm sure some one can go through the books and figure out how much LOCAL taxpayers have to come up with to buy out the interests of the State and Federal government. They can calculate interest costs at whatever the prevailing rate was on municipal bonds through the period.

    And HSR is going to be investing a few billion, I'm sure, if they are going to get charged for use of the ROW, they can come up with charges for use of their track, catenary and stations grade separations etc.

    ... and the PCJPB doesn't have the rights to intercity passenger traffic, UP does. .

    ... one of the reasons the Caltrain corridor was selected was it's low cost. Charging rent might make Altamont more attractive.

  17. Caltrain First04 June, 2009 17:22

    Whether it is Altamont or Pacheco Pass, HSR would use the Caltrain corridor. Look at a map.

    Caltrain certainly does need to be compensated by CHSRA for use of its ROW. Caltrain operations are also going to be disrupted by CHSRA's construction, so Caltrain has every right to demand more than capital improvements that may take well over a decade to implement.

    This whole deceptive narrative that HSR will "pay for itself" is absurd. The extremely high capital costs of all these grade separations and tunnels will never be recovered and will be borne by the taxpayer. This is why citizens must be vigilant in the oversight of CHSRA's contractors, who will be expecting big profits for themselves. HSR could possibly recover its operating costs, but the enormous capital costs will all be absorbed by the public citizen. Then again, the BART-to-SFO extension claimed operating surpluses that never materialized. Actually, the operating losses on the BART-to-SFO extension forced Samtrans to cut bus routes and increase bus fares. This is not even considering the billions in capital costs that were sunk into the poorly-designed extension. Lying about operating profits is a common trick to get projects approved.

    The idea that a private company would be allowed to make an operating profit off enormous public investments in HSR capital infrastructure is terrible. It's an egregious giveaway from the public sector to the private sector. It's bad enough that the public doesn't have enough control over the design and construction of HSR.

    Quentin Kopp makes the ignorant claim that CHSRA will recover all its costs, which is completely false. Kopp even had the nerve to attack AC Transit for running operating deficits during one CHSRA board meeting, when AC Transit's costs are tiny in comparison to the taxpayer costs being considered by CHSRA. At least AC Transit serves a strong social role, while CHSRA in its current configuration seeks to serve wealthy business travelers, engineering contractors, and development interests.

  18. Whether it is Altamont or Pacheco Pass, HSR would use the Caltrain corridor. Look at a map

    I have, go north from Fremont and terminate in West Oakland, under the BART tracks. Build a nice station where people can use escalators and elevators to get between the two. Doesn't have to go anywhere near the Peninsula at all. Or use the money they would be wasting on building tunnels along the Peninsula to build a new cross bay tunnel. North from Fremont, west from Oakland and the train from Los Angeles stops in the same place it would if it came up the Peninsula. Gives lousy service to people on the Peninsula but thems the breaks.

  19. About the rent that Martin suggests HSR should pay the PCJPB... just what should it be?

    It's already been pointed out that the corridor was payed for--and is thus owned--not just by the three counties, but also by the state (the builder and future owner of the high speed rail system.)

    That issue aside, what would be fair rent?

    The high speed rail authority would be renting the corridor land, not the improvements-- since they intend to build all their own improvements thereon. The 700-acre corridor was valued at $219M in 1991. Assume that 18 years later, it has doubled in value to $440M. Further assume that a fair rent-to-price ratio is 15... annual rent would be a $30M for the entire corridor, of which the HSR system would occupy only about half. Therefore, a fair rent would be on the order of $15M per year.

    Martin, how far does that go for us peninsula residents, compared to $4.2B of improvements--an amount nearly 300 times greater--from which Caltrain and its riders stand to benefit greatly?

    I say benefit greatly, because Caltrain electrification is a political pipe dream so long as Caltrain is run as a tricephalous organization whose three members have other priorities.

    I think the rent idea is not in our interest, unless you meant to say extortion...

  20. Re "rent", etc.

    The thing people (and foamers) keep losing track of is that HSR will be a minority user of the corridor.

    The CHSRA may be politically juiced in a way that Caltrain never has been nor ever will be, but that does not change the basic public policy fact that the majority of the users of the public transportation corridor are and always will be regional (ie Caltrain, not flight level zero ersatz airline, passengers), no matter the ridership and frequency confabulation (that's the polite word) of the self-serving -- and uniformly historically proven wrong -- local HSR/BART consultants.

    It's not NIMBYism or any other easy to throw around term of denigration to suggest that the primary beneficiaries of the development of a corridor ought to be the people who use it most, and it's a happy coincidence that they're the ones who live closest to it (as opposed to, say, in Anaheim or Los Banos.)

    THe sort of outright insanity we see in which it is suggested that, say, Caltrain terminate in Siberia short of Transbay in SF and that Caltrain should beg pretty please to run a couple milk runs in between the kewl CHSRA blue and gold SuperTrains and Vital Freight Services is miserable economics, bad public policy, and awful politics.

    Tails shouldn't wag dogs.

  21. Caltrain First04 June, 2009 23:47

    Caltrain currently has a severe operating deficit crisis, but Caltrain's finances have never been sound. This is largely due to their weak Joint Powers Board political structure and a lack of a dedicated revenue source. True, Caltrain's operating cost structure is not efficient, and their labor structure could certainly be streamlined. This, however, is a common problem with most Bay Area transit agencies and their outdated, inefficient work rules. BART has fewer workers serving each train, but BART has a bloated bureaucracy. (3300 well-paid workers for 104 route miles and less than 200,000 daily patrons!!!) Of course, MTC has always favored BART at the expense of Caltrain. Just think, extending Caltrain to the Transbay Terminal and electrifying the entire Peninsula line would have been so much functionally better and cost-effective than extending BART to SFO.

    At the moment, CHSRA is just a massive capital improvement campaign, and the business plan for operations is sketchy and tentative at best. Given that CHSRA is encroaching on Caltrain's ROW and disrupting Caltrain's operations, what's in it for Caltrain? Yeah, the capital improvements are nice, but are they worth all the delay and disruption to service? Capital improvements don't help Caltrain's immediate operating needs, and Caltrain could become less attractive to riders during the construction process. What if CHSRA plans to steal all of Caltrain's Baby Bullet premium customers to cover their own operating shortfalls?

    The expensive grade separations are a luxury for Caltrain, but other capital projects are actually more essential in improving Caltrain. Namely, electrification and getting lightweight rolling stock would do so much more to improve the service to the public. Even with Caltrain's debilitating political/financial structure, Caltrain could manage electrification on its own, since electrification is much less expensive than all these proposed grade separations. Caltrain's electrification plan has been delayed long enough as it is.

    The CHSRA contractors especially like these grade separations, because they are expensive and a source of great profit for them: pour lots of concrete!!! Change orders throughout the design and construction stages are welcome too. They are lucrative!

    In terms of Caltrain safety, simply fencing the corridor would be a good start!

  22. Richard, once again, has a point, but the problem here is that the ridership models used by HSRA's consultants seem to assume is that HSR will take on a significant amount of local traffic, which is several different kinds of unrealistic. And even a system like Taiwan HSR, in a country with a third the car-ownership rate of California, runs between 2 and 4 trains per hour, which is going to be roughly half of the service that Caltrain is planning to run.

  23. Metro Taipei is barely half the size of Greater Los Angeles, and metro Kaohsiung, which is only served by a station in a small suburb, is less half the size of the Bay Area.

  24. Re: "Metro Taipei is barely half the size of Greater Los Angeles" and suchlike:

    San Jose, Capital of Silicon Valley, Paris of the West, Third Largest City in California, Tenth Largest City in the United States of America and home to the Diridon "not yet dead" Memorial Intergalactic Transit Facility has a transit system that carries LESS THAN 19% of the daily riders of the lower-population, generally altogether insignificant conurbation somewhere to its north.

    Now just how could that be?

    And this isn't just picking on mighty San Jose: as I've mentioned before: "After all one station in tiny Zürich (population 360k) sees more train riders every day than LA's (pop more than ten times as great) entire rail system."

    CHSR's ridership potential is not even that of Madrid-Barcelona, let alone the far more outlandish analogies (be they naïve or fraudulent) that are made here and elsewhere. Population by itself has very little to do with it -- unless you're selling a very large bill of goods.

    (Not to say it shouldn't be built, given the right alignment with the correct engineering and the correct financing and the correct operating model, but grunting "Los Angeles big" doesn't cut it as investment justification.)

  25. You don't need a good rapid transit system to feed good HSR. In France and Japan, there's good rail transit in Paris and in Tokyo and Osaka, but not elsewhere. Lyon Metro is about the same size as LA's Red Line, and was even smaller when the TGV opened. Marseille Metro is yet smaller. Lille Metro is an airport-style people mover. Fukuoka City Subway is shorter than the Red Line as well; its commuter rail system is, as far as I can tell, no larger than Metrolink. Hiroshima has a good streetcar network, but its rapid transit consists of one line that's, again, shorter than the Red Line. Outside Switzerland, there just isn't any good rail transit outside the big cities.

    Of course, in California, neither of the two main cities on the HSR line has a decent public transit system. But so what? If it were so essential, you'd expect the Sanyo Shinkansen and the TGV to be stranded, since outside the major city at one end there's no rail to connect to. Instead, they're the most heavily ridden HSR lines in the world next to the Tokaido Shinkansen, far ahead of the Madrid-Barcelona AVE with its large subway systems at both ends.

  26. Alon: in most other countries, even if there isn't good rail transit, there's just plain good regular transit, and it's everywhere. Fukuoka's commuter rail network may be smaller than Metrolink, but I bet that unlike Metrolink, it runs 7 days a week, and probably provides at least half-hourly service throughout the entire day. And it's complemented by a comprehensive network of buses that get you from the station to where you're actually going, and do so in a reasonable amount of time. In California it's very often the case that you just can't get where you need to go on transit, or can do so only with a very large amount of waiting, walking, and a very slow ride. Consider, as just one example, someone considering going to Monterey, which isn't all that far from the Gilroy station, and there's even a bus that makes that connection. A bus that runs only three times a day, at somewhat inconvenient times, and means that if you're going on a day trip, you have to leave at 3 pm. Of course, you could use some HSR money to upgrade this service, but keep in mind that you'd have to apply similar logic to all the connecting transit systems along the line and it suddenly becomes quite a lot of money.

  27. Once HSR shows up, there's likely to be more demand for these connecting services, so they will be able to expand without extra public funds.

  28. "Once HSR shows up, there's likely to be more demand for these connecting services, so they will be able to expand without extra public funds."


    That's why SamTrans was forced to destroy its bus service even before the BART extension to SFO-Millbrae opened in order to pay for the latter, why it suffered even further decimations since then to prop up the failed mega-project, why San Mateo's sales taxes continue to be abstracted by BART (per a "regional agreement" of outright extortion by MTC staffers) even though San Mateo no longer has any involvement in or say over the fiasco, and why both operating and capital contributions to Caltrain continue to be impossible to obtain.

    But that's OK, because this time the connecting services are going to run at a profit! Just like they do everywhere else in the world. In fact, bus drivers are going to have to pay just for the privilege of carrying any HSR-bound passengers.

  29. This is unacceptable. It's a major safety issue. The conductors don't like it and the passengers don't like it. --- "Caltrain has not yet demonstrated any strong motivation to trim operating costs, such as by cutting the redundant assistant conductors present on every train. That alone would save millions-- the operating contract with Amtrak accounts for nearly two-thirds of their costs."

  30. @caltrainfirst "The idea that a private company would be allowed to make an operating profit off enormous public investments in HSR capital infrastructure is terrible." every seen a big rig on a freeway? ever been to an airport?

  31. @anonymous " San Mateo's sales taxes continue to be abstracted by BART (per a "regional agreement" of outright extortion by MTC staffers)"

    Excuse us but San Mateo is the one county that had bart service from the time bart opened 30 years ago and never paid a dime in taxes to bart. The got a free station for 30 years. so yes they ahd to buy into the system and pay their share.

  32. Caltrain First08 June, 2009 13:56

    If a private rail operator wants to pay market rent and fees to operate on the multi-billion dollar public investment in HSR infrastructure, that could work, but why do I doubt that this will come to pass? If the private operator wants to have a monopoly on HSR service, then they have to pay substantially for that right and meet certain service standards. CHSRA could hand out an operating contract simply for operator services, but CHSRA should retain most of the revenue. Local commute services such as Caltrain need to be protected from "cherry-picking" of their customers by private operators.

    Of course, Amtrak is a "private" company in legislative terminology only, given that it has always received heavy federal subsidies. Sort of like GM these days...

    Trucks pay fees and gas taxes, but they don't pay their share given the damage that they do to roads. Regardless of whether you like the physical outcome or not, automobile users do pay their way in local property taxes for local streets (rarely do local residents elect to keep their local streets unpaved) and gas taxes for highways and major roads, especially given that cars don't wear out roads anywhere near to the extent of trucks. Airlines pay substantial landing fees to use airports. Will private HSR operators pay their way? It's important that the public gets value for its enormous capital investment.

  33. @jim, if you can make a cogent case for a second conductor, I'm all ears, because I've never heard one made before. In arguments like these, words like "major safety issue" get thrown around all too easily.

  34. Clem. It is a major safety issue. Do you know that the conductors when forced to work alone don''t even have time to collect most of the tickets. Do you want ONE guy to responsible for the safety of 300 hundred people? Do you have any idea what their duties are? They aren't just walking around chit chatting with passengers. They are respsonible for the entire operation of the train I won't fly ona plane with only one person in the cockpit and I won't ride on a train with only one person running it. There should be two people up front and two conductors on board. At all times. YOu do know that when there is a trespasser strike the conductor is the one ( and this is the only reason I didn't opt to take that training path) who has to go pull the body parts out of the mechanics and get the train cleaned off. Good idea to have some back up there. The public does not like having only one guy in charge of their safety either. Not too mention the lack of service and attention. Unless you work fro the railroad you should keep you nose out of railroad business. It's not the picnic you think it is.